Are anxiety disorders linked to modern technology? (Part 2)


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So in Part 1 of this entry, I laid out the premise that a rise in anxiety disorders could indicated whether or not technological connectedness was interfering with the ability of people to interact comfortably in real-world environments. Click on the link to read a bit of background about this idea, some predictions about data, and confounding variables. For now, let's turn to that all-important question: what does the science say?

First, let's look at the data on anxiety disorders. A generalized anxiety disorder diagnosis was first added to the DSM-III in 1980. The term "DSM-III" refers to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, version III. The DSM is currently in version IV, and is considered the ultimate authority on diagnoses for mental illness. From 1998 to 2008, an UK study from 361 doctor's offices showed a decline in anxiety diagnoses, but, interestingly, a rise in the prevalence of anxiety symptoms. A 12-month American study in 2005 with 9,282 participants showed an average rate of anxiety disorders to be at 18.1% of the population. Both these studies provide weak evidence for a correlation between rising anxiety rates and the rise of technological development. The UK study also found anxiety disorders to be much more common in the age group 16-44-- another weak link for technology affecting the development of young people sooner.

It's worth noting that for a question that seems to weigh on the minds of English and communications majors, the scientific community at large is not terribly concerned with a potential connection between poor social skills and technology. There are only a few direct studies, none of which are long-term, and which do not explicitly study only technology and anxiety links (one study is about multitasking with technology).

Let's look at a study published by the group Anxiety UK, which was expanded on in the sensationalist Huffington Post article "Social Media Is Causing Anxiety", and is probably the source of claims that, well, social media causes anxiety. This study should be considered of dubious credibility because it was produced by a group with an agenda of talking about anxiety. Furthermore, finding specifics on the study itself is nearly impossible: want to know the number of participants? How they were selected? If they already had a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder? If any experimentation (manipulating exposure to technology) was done? Too bad, because none of this information is provided. Of the actual conclusions about anxiety and technology provided, one was that technology provided outlets for those with social anxiety, and another was that separation from tech devices like smartphones and computers caused anxiety. But this second conclusion is separation anxiety, not poor social functioning, and thus does not fit our hypothesis. I would like to emphasize again that without the specifics of this study available, all its data and conclusions are suspect.

Frankly, there's just not enough data to answer this question. Anxiety disorders may be on the rise, but there's not even enough data to make that conclusion. Certainly rates are not skyrocketing as technology has improved. The premise of a link between anxiety and technology is plausible, but only assuming online interactions are an insufficient substitute for in-person relationships-- which, you guessed it, has also to be proven. Technology may be helping people learn social skills, or it may be hurting their development. But if it's doing either, it's not doing so in such an obvious manner as the rhetoric would suggest.



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